Kerr, Philip 1956- (P.B. Kerr)
Kerr, Philip 1956- (P.B. Kerr)
Born 1956, in Scotland; married Jane Thynne (a journalist); children: three. Education: Law school graduate.
Home—Wimbledon, England. E-mail—[email protected].
Writer. Previously worked in law, advertising, and journalism.
March Violets (also see below), Viking (London, England), 1989.
The Pale Criminal (also see below), Viking (London, England), 1990.
A German Requiem (also see below), Viking (London, England), 1991.
A Philosophical Investigation, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1992.
Berlin Noir (contains March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem), Penguin Books (London, England), 1993.
Dead Meat, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Gridiron, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1995, published as The Grid, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Esau, Holt (New York, NY), 1997.
A Five-Year Plan, Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
The Second Angel, Holt (New York, NY), 1999.
The Shot: A Thriller, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Dark Matter, Crown (New York, NY), 2002.
Hitler's Peace: A Novel of the Second World War, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 2005.
The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther Novel, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 2006.
The Penguin Book of Lies (anthology), Penguin (New York, NY), 1990.
The Penguin Book of Fights, Feuds, and Heartfelt Hatreds: An Anthology of Antipathy, Penguin (London, England), 1993.
"CHILDREN OF THE LAMP" SERIES; UNDER NAME P.B. KERR
The Akhenaten Adventure, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2004.
The Blue Djinn of Babylon, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2006.
The Cobra King of Kathmandu, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2007.
(With Robin Mukherjee) Grushko (screenplay), British Broadcasting Corporation, 1993.
Esau was optioned for film by Walt Disney Corporation; DreamWorks bought film rights to The Akhenaten Adventure.
Philip Kerr is a British writer whose work encompasses techno-thrillers, mysteries, and science fiction—sometimes intermingled in one plot. According to Phil Baker in the London Sunday Times, Kerr "has carved out a reputation as Britain's new state-of-the-art thriller writer." In books such as Esau and The Second Angel, Kerr combines sophisticated science with action-driven plots, and in his more traditional mysteries he muses upon international politics, anti-Semitism, and nuclear proliferation. Kerr's books pose serious questions about science and humanity. In the New York Times Book Review, Liam Gallanan commented: "Better genre fiction is hard to categorize. Is it mystery or suspense? Fantasy or science fiction? … The best of them manage to leap across the aisle into ‘literary fiction.’ Philip Kerr's [work is] exactly this sort."
In 1989 Kerr launched his career as a novelist with March Violets, the first of four well-received mysteries set in Nazi-era Berlin that feature a private investigator named Bernhard Gunther. A hard-boiled ex-cop who is always ready with a sarcastic observation or two about life under the Third Reich, Gunther has been described by more than one reviewer as a German Philip Marlowe. In fact, as reviewer Ed Strosser noted in Armchair Detective, Kerr's portrayal of his hero "is solidly in the [Raymond] Chandler tradition of the tough guy with a sensitive heart."
The plot of March Violets places elements of the standard detective novel against the backdrop of an entire country sliding into dictatorship. A specialist in tracking down missing persons—mostly Jews—Gunther takes on a very different assignment when a powerful German industrialist hires him to find out who murdered his daughter and son-in-law and stole a valuable diamond necklace from their safe before burning down their house. The investigation plunges the detective into a full-blown political scandal involving Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, two of Adolf Hitler's closest aides, and assorted other scrapes with various Gestapo agents, criminals, and even a famous actress. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly said the author "re-creates the period accurately and with verve … Gunther is a spirited guide through the chaos of 1930s Berlin." Strosser declared March Violets to be "a promising first novel."
Gunther surfaces again in Kerr's second novel, The Pale Criminal. Set in 1938, a couple of years after March Violets, the book focuses on a conspiracy involving homosexuality, blackmail, serial murder, and the occult, all of which ultimately have connections with Hitler's brutal SS. Gunther's search for answers once more draws him into the seamy underworld of pre-war Berlin and gives him cause to reflect on the darkness and evil inherent in mankind. While Times Literary Supplement reviewer Savkar Altinel found Kerr's treatment of his themes "a touch perfunctory" and his slangy language suggestive of "an inept translation," Altinel contended that "the plot … is handled with some skill." On the other hand, Tom Nolan of the Wall Street Journal thought Kerr's language was perfectly suited to his subject matter and his main character, a "tarnished knight" who is "by turns vulgar and starkly lyrical." Continued Nolan: "Gunther travels some truly awful boulevards … Kerr renders this dire place and time in an effective and aptly stilted prose that often reads as if translated from the German." Strosser concluded in Armchair Detective that Kerr uses "mordant humor" and "an abundance of period detail" to fashion "a vivid portrait of life in a city ruled by madmen and doomed to nearly total destruction."
Kerr's third installment in the Gunther series, A German Requiem, takes place for the most part not in prewar Berlin but in postwar Vienna. It is there that Gunther becomes involved in cold war intrigue with ex-Nazis, the Soviet KGB, and U.S. intelligence. "Rooted in historical details, driven by a powerful narrative, this atmospheric novel traces a frightening course amid a multiplicity of ironies," declared a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Looking back over the entire Gunther series, Christopher Wordsworth concluded in the Observer that it is "brutally powerful stuff."
Kerr later turned his attention to the present and even the near-future as the author of techno-thrillers and detective stories set in exotic locations. A Philosophical Investigation, for instance, takes place in London in the year 2013. Technology is being used to help control crime by means of genetic "fingerprinting" and brain scanning that identify those who are prone to violence. But one of these potential killers succeeds in breaking into the computer containing information on his fellow misfits, all of whom have code names corresponding to famous philosophers and writers. He then erases his own name from the database and begins murdering the others one by one in a misguided attempt to purge society of its most dangerous elements. Assigned to solve the case is a tough, man-hating detective named Isadora "Jake" Jakowicz. She is soon drawn into the killer's bizarre game. Nolan, in the Wall Street Journal, called A Philosophical Investigation "one of the more imaginative thrillers in quite a while," adding that the "inventive procedural [moves] swiftly as [Kerr] combines teleological speculations with nitty-gritty futuristic police work." Scott Veale made a similar observation in the New York Times Book Review, noting that Kerr "clearly has more on his mind than standard slasher fiction" as he lays out his "bleak, nasty vision of a future world." The vivid depiction of that vision is, in fact, what Lucasta Miller of the New Statesman & Society deemed most impressive about A Philosophical Investigation. She admired "the plausibility with which Philip Kerr constructs his sinister vision of Britain in the 21st century…. With an observant eye for detail, [he] reveals a fine-tuned ability to make his fiction credible by combining the futuristic with the familiar."
Others took A Philosophical Investigation a bit less seriously than its subject matter might dictate. Commenting in the Spectator, for instance, Harriet Waugh stated that the inclusion of so much moral philosophy in the novel proves to be "rather fun and gives Mr. Kerr leeway for some amusing high jinks … The only real criticism of [his book] is that it is enjoyable rather than truly racy and hair raising." S.M. Tyson of the Armchair Detective also praised the book's "wicked humor and social satire," declaring it to be "true brain candy … that deserves a wide general audience beyond the mystery and science fiction lovers who are bound to delight in it."
Kerr followed A Philosophical Investigation with a more conventional thriller titled Dead Meat. It follows two Russian detectives who join forces in St. Petersburg. The pair battles corruption, bureaucracy, and a lack of resources while trying to contend with the organized crime syndicate known as the Russian Mafia. As with his previous novels, reviewers praised Kerr's skillful evocation of the grim and desperate land in which the action takes place—perhaps the book's "most interesting" feature, to quote Newgate Callendar in the New York Times Book Review. Donald H. Buck, writing in Armchair Detective, also found that the author "successfully blends a fascinating picture of daily life and an equally engrossing police investigation."
With his next novel, The Grid, Kerr returned to the techno-thriller genre, cementing his reputation as one of Great Britain's most successful young writers. His setting this time is Los Angeles in the near future, where the central computer ("Abraham") that runs a brand- new, fully automated, high-rise office tower suddenly (and with deadly intent) turns on the people who designed, built, and work in the building. Stopping Abraham becomes the responsibility of a police detective and an assistant to the tower's architect. Woven throughout the plot of what People magazine critic J.D. Reed described as a "tale of ego and electronics run riot" are Kerr's thought-provoking observations on modern technology, architecture, and big-city life, all of which he regards with pessimism. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Julian Ferraro remarked that the fictional world of The Grid "is in many respects familiar" and "reads like the ‘book of the film’ before the film has even been made." Ferraro continued: "It does, however, add some entertaining postmodern twists to the computer paranoia movies of the 1970s." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called The Grid a "mindbending thriller, sure and savvy," adding that the book "will make readers think twice the next time they enter a high-rise—and thrice the next time they boot up a computer."
Kerr's 1997 novel Esau melds science fiction, adventure, and political thriller in a tale of discovery and deception. Mountain climber Jack Furness makes a discovery on a remote Himalayan mountain after being stranded by an avalanche: a skull of an ape unlike any seen before. When he shows it to his former girlfriend, Stella Swift—who is a paleontologist—she determines that the skull is not a fossil at all, but a relatively recent specimen of a "missing link": the Yeti, or abominable snowman. Together, Jack and Stella organize an expedition to search for more Yeti, but they remain unaware that one of their comrades on the trip is a CIA operative with an entirely different agenda. In Booklist, Brian Kenney described Esau as "genre fiction at its best." The critic added that Kerr "delivers a novel that defines the ‘good read,’ while leaving the reader feeling a bit smarter the next morning." A Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded that Kerr "far outstrips" novelist Michael Crichton "in this mix of Himalaya derring-do with a breathtakingly well-informed command of mountain-climbing hardware, primate biology, and philosophical speculations on the riddles of evolution."
A horrific view of the not-too-distant future informs The Second Angel. Set in 2069—the centennial of the first moon walk—the novel describes a world in which the majority of humankind is infected with a deadly virus. The only cure for the virus is a complete blood transfusion with clean blood—and the wealthy who are able to afford the treatment have created a fortress-blood bank on the moon to assure a safe and unreachable supply. The story revolves around a daring attempt to breach the blood bank by a latter-day Robin Hood who wants to cure the world. In her Entertainment Weekly review of the book, Vanessa V. Friedman stated: "Kerr's vision of the future is detailed, depressingly dark, and utterly absorbing." New York Times Book Review contributor Charles Flowers deemed the work Kerr's "most intellectually satisfying novel yet," and Library Journal correspondent Devon Thomas cited it for "an intriguing plot with an ingenious setup and many colorful details."
Kerr has not abandoned the noir thriller in the wake of his interest in science fiction. Both A Five-Year Plan and The Shot: A Thriller are crime novels—one set in the present, one dealing with the volatile 1960s. In A Five-Year Plan, an intellectual ex-convict formulates a plan to hijack a money-laden yacht transport en route to Russia. His scheme is threatened by an FBI agent who is stalking the same transport in search of illegal drugs. Kenney maintained that, "as always, Kerr creates great, complex characters, and in no time, you are caring enough about [them] to keep reading, no matter how predictable the plot might become." Thomas suggested that Kerr "shows here that he can handle lighter, almost romantic material." Romance does not figure in the plot of The Shot, a tense story of a psychopathic Korean War veteran who has been enlisted to perform assassinations for a shadowy organization. According to Baker in the Sunday Times, Kerr "keeps the plot twisting admirably through an intelligent if callous thriller, which is also an understated but tasty period piece full of sappy dialogue and sharp detailing." The critic continued: "Kerr has grafted a Day of the Jackal-style scenario onto the cheesy, sleazy, easy-listening savoirfaire of the Sinatra era…. Kerr's new novel certainly hits the spot."
After many years as a writer of thrillers and mysteries, Kerr surprised the publishing world in 2004 when he wrote the children's book The Akhenaten Adventure. The first in a proposed trilogy of novels, the book was immediately bought by Scholastic, who paid a record one million British pounds for all three titles. Kerr explained to Caroline Horn in Bookseller that he wrote for children because he wanted to get his eleven-year-old son to read: "I thought that if I could give my son a ‘road to Damascus’ experience he might become a reader."
The Akhenaten Adventure tells of twins John and Philippa who, while under anesthesia at the dentist's office, experience a revelation: they are really members of a tribe of djinn, or genies. The revelation leads to odd changes in the pair: they suddenly find that they can grant wishes and have strange insights. Along with the new powers comes a need to learn how to control those powers. Their uncle Nimrod, also a djinn, takes them under his wing, but his motivation is not necessarily loving: he needs their abilities as well. Meanwhile, an enemy tribe, the Iblis, are attempting to uncover the lost tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. The Iblis must be stopped or Evil will acquire great power over Good. Sharon Rawlins, writing in School Library Journal, noted that Kerr's story has an "often humorous, fast-moving plot." A critic for Kirkus Reviews called The Akhenaten Adventure "funny and clever," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer stated that "Kerr keeps the emphasis on fun." Writing in Booklist, Jennifer Mattson admitted that "it's hard not to admire the well-crafted scaffolding that supports the fantasy," while Anita L. Burkam concluded in her Horn Book review that The Akhenaten Adventure is "an agreeable page-turner."
The Blue Djinn of Babylon is the second novel in the "Children of the Lamp" series. This installment finds John and Philippa at home, where they have promised their mother to have no more magical adventures. But when John is bullied at school, and Philippa is framed as a cheater, the twins must use their magic to defend themselves. Worse, the evil Blue Djinn of Babylon kidnaps Philippa, and John must figure a way to defeat her magical powers. A critic for Kirkus Reviews called The Blue Djinn of Babylon "solidly entertaining."
Speaking to Carol Fitzgerald in an online interview for KidsReads.com, Kerr explained why he made John and Philippa twins. "I think there is something special about twins," the writer stated, "something magical. In fact, ancient tribes used to think twins had power over the weather." Kerr admitted that the ending of his trilogy will be a surprise to him as much as it will be to readers. "I do not know exactly what will happen in the third book," he explained. "I think you cannot know too much about it yourself. Sometimes I do not know what is going on, which makes it more terrifying, all that not knowing what will happen in the next chapter."
Kerr returned to historical fiction with the mystery Dark Matter, which cast Sir Isaac Newton in the role of an amateur detective. Appointed overseer of a significant project to mint money in England, Newton and his partner, Christopher Ellis—who narrates the story and serves a similar function as the character of Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—uncover a vast conspiracy to stir up war with France, counterfeit money, and wipe out thousands of Catholics. Using science and logic, Newton proves his theories and tries to thwart the plot. Dark Matter is a convincing depiction of the 1600s, an absorbing mystery, and also "an illuminating, often crackling exploration into the mysteries of science, mathematics, religion, and human nature," according to Frank Sennett in Booklist. The book was also praised as "an exciting read" by Fred Gervat, a reviewer for Library Journal. Gervat further credited "the ever-versatile Kerr" with creating "a rich tapestry" of fascinating characters and historical details. A romantic subplot involving Ellis and Newton's niece is a less-successful element of the story, according to a Publishers Weekly writer, but the book is overall "a most gripping and well-appointed entertainment."
Nazi Germany is the setting for the spy thriller Hitler's Peace: A Novel of the Second World War, published in 2005. The book is full of "plot twists that will keep readers' heads spinning even after they've put it down," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The central character is Willard Mayer, a philosopher who was educated at Harvard and served as a professor at Princeton. Mayer also worked for the German intelligence service and acted as an informer for the Internal Affairs Commissariat of Russia. His past is unknown to U.S. officials, who enlist him to work for the Office of Strategic Services. His adventures are "highly entertaining" and also examine "the moral quandaries of war and realpolitik," stated a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The author's skill in using real events within his fictional thriller was praised by David Wright in Booklist: "It's always a treat to see what fresh intrigue has aroused this versatile British author's interests."
Fifteen years after completing his "Berlin Noir" trilogy, Kerr returned to the character of Bernhard Gunther in The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther Novel, published in 2006. The story takes place in 1949, and as it begins, Gunther is seen closing up the hotel his wife had run in Berlin. He returns to Munich and opens up shop as a private detective. A woman enlists him to find her missing husband, a Nazi SS officer renowned for his cruelty. Like the earlier "Berlin Noir" books, this one has a style and tone similar to Raymond Chandler's, and the action-packed plot "should please most fans of classic hard-boiled mystery and historical espionage," stated David Wright in Booklist. Ron Terpening, reviewing the book for Library Journal, praised the author for his sure storytelling style and his valuable introspection. He further noted: "Bernie's wicked wit is a delight, the plot is gripping, and the historical settings are masterfully developed." Gunther's cynical, weary manner is most convincing, and appropriate to contemporary times as well as the era in which the story is set, according to Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times Book Review. She wrote: "Because he never had any illusions to begin with, Gunther is the ideal narrator for Kerr's bleak tale of the dirty deals made by victors and vanquished alike."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Armchair Detective, fall, 1990, Ed Strosser, review of March Violets, p. 473; summer, 1991, review of The Pale Criminal, p. 345; winter, 1994, S.M. Tyson, review of A Philosophical Investigation, p. 104; fall, 1994, Donald H. Buck, review of Dead Meat, pp. 486-487.
Booklist, February 15, 1997, Brian Kenney, review of Esau; April 15, 1998, Brian Kenney, review of A Five-Year Plan, p. 1386; October 15, 1998, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Second Angel, p. 371; August, 2002, Frank Sennett, review of Dark Matter, p. 1930; September 15, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of The Akhenaten Adventure, p. 233; April 1, 2005, David Wright, review of Hitler's Peace: A Novel of the Second World War, p. 1325; September 1, 2006, David Wright, review of The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther Novel, p. 62.
Bookseller, June 18, 2004, Caroline Horn, "Kerr Finds the Magical Touch for Kids," p. 35.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 2005, Timnah Card, review of The Akhenaten Adventure, p. 214.
Economist, November 10, 1990, review of The Penguin Book of Lies, p. 109.
Entertainment Weekly, January 8, 1999, Vanessa V. Friedman, review of The Second Angel, p. 62.
Horn Book, January-February, 2005, Anita L. Burkam, review of The Akhenaten Adventure, p. 95.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1989, review of March Violets, pp. 720-721; February 1, 1997, review of Esau; July 15, 2002, review of Dark Matter, p. 981; October 1, 2004, review of The Akhenaten Adventure, p. 963; March 15, 2005, review of Hitler's Peace, p. 308; December 15, 2005, review of The Blue Djinn of Babylon, p. 1323; August 1, 2006, review of The One from the Other, p. 745.
Kliatt, May, 2005, Jodi L. Israel, review of The Akhenaten Adventure, p. 49.
Library Journal, April 1, 1998, Devon Thomas, review of A Five-Year Plan, p. 122; November 1, 1998, Devon Thomas, review of The Second Angel, p. 126; August, 2002, Fred Gervat, review of Dark Matter, p. 143; April 15, 2005, Robert Conroy, review of Hitler's Peace, p. 74; September 15, 2006, Ron Terpening, review of The One from the Other, p. 48.
Maclean's, May 13, 1996, review of The Grid, p. 49.
Magpies, March, 2005, Rayma Turton, review of The Akhenaten Adventure, p. 34.
Nation, June 7, 1993, John Leonard, review of A Philosophical Investigation, pp. 788-800.
New Statesman & Society, October 5, 1990, review of The Penguin Book of Lies, p. 44; September 25, 1992, Lucasta Miller, review of A Philosophical Investigation, pp. 53-54.
New York Times Book Review, June 13, 1993, Scott Veale, review of A Philosophical Investigation, p. 20; May 22, 1994, Newgate Callendar, review of Dead Meat, p. 39; July 14, 1996, James Polk, review of The Grid; April 27, 1997, Liam Gallanan, review of Esau; February 14, 1999, Charles Flowers, "Blood on the Moon (Really!)," p. 20; September 10, 2006, Marilyn Stasio, review of The One from the Other, p. 27.
Observer, May 14, 1989, review of March Violets, p. 50; December 6, 1992, review of The Penguin Book of Fights, Feuds, and Heartfelt Hatreds, p. 57; April 25, 1993, review of Berlin Noir, p. 62.
People, June 3, 1996, J.D. Reed, review of The Grid, p. 36; March 1, 1999, Cynthia Sanz, review of The Second Angel, p. 43.
Publishers Weekly, June 9, 1989, Sybil Steinberg, review of March Violets, p. 56; August 16, 1991, review of A German Requiem, pp. 49-50; April 25, 1994, review of Dead Meat, p. 60; February 5, 1996, review of The Grid, p. 75; March 23, 1998, review of A Five-Year Plan, p. 74; December 7, 1998, review of The Second Angel, p. 51; July 29, 2002, review of Dark Matter, p. 49; November 24, 2003, John F. Baker, "Kerr Shifts to Kids' Books," p. 10; October 4, 2004, review of The Akhenaten Adventure, p. 88; April 18, 2005, review of Hitler's Peace, p. 44; July 24, 2006, review of The One from the Other, p. 35.
School Librarian, summer, 2005, Joan Hamilton Jones, review of The Akhenaten Adventure, p. 90.
School Library Journal, December, 2004, Sharon Rawlins, review of The Akhenaten Adventure, p. 149; March, 2005, Jane P. Fenn, review of The Akhenaten Adventure, p. 86.
Spectator, August 28, 1993, Harriet Waugh, review of A Philosophical Investigation, pp. 32-33.
Sunday Times (London, England), January 2, 2000, Phil Baker, "Leaving No Fingerprints," p. 44.
Times Literary Supplement, June 29, 1990, Savkar Altinel, review of The Pale Criminal, p. 704; December 4, 1992, Ruth Picardie, review of The Penguin Book of Fights, Feuds, and Heartfelt Hatreds, p. 32; June 9, 1995, Julian Ferraro, review of Gridiron, p. 29.
Wall Street Journal, September 20, 1990, Tom Nolan, review of The Pale Criminal, p. A12; May 17, 1993, Tom Nolan, review of A Philosophical Investigation, p. A14.
KidsReads.com,http://www.kidsreads.com (October, 2004), interview with Philip Kerr.
Philip Kerr Home Page,http://www.pbkerr.com (April 12, 2007).